How the Pandemic Reshaped Fueling
Drivers are expected to travel 33 miles a day in 2022—the same amount as in 2019 before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. So does that mean we’re back to normal, and life returns to what it was?
Not even close.
We’ve seen enormous shifts in drivers’ attitudes and behaviors, which will impact the convenience and fuels industry—an industry that sells 80% of the fuels purchased in the United States.
So, how have fueling behavior and consumer perceptions changed during the past two years? How can retailers find opportunities to serve the new fuels consumer? Let’s look at results from the newly released 2022 NACS Consumer Fuels Survey.
CONSUMERS ARE MORE PESSIMISTIC
Convenience stores sell immediate consumption. When consumers are happy, they spend more, especially on impulse items. However, their mood has soured thanks to the third year of a global pandemic, a labor shortage, supply chain disruptions, rising prices and an increasingly divided electorate.
Of these factors, the one that most affects a consumer’s mood is rising prices. Nearly 2 in 3 drivers (61%) say gasoline prices have “greatly increased” during the past few months, and they’re correct.
The 2022 NACS Consumer Fuels Survey was conducted by national public opinion research firm Core Decision Analytics (CODA). A total of 1,090 U.S. consumers who say they drive and fill up at least monthly were surveyed from February 17-21, 2022. The margin for error for the study is +/- 2.96 at the 95% confidence level. NACS has conducted national consumer sentiment surveys since 2007.
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in late February (after this survey was fielded), gasoline prices were surging. In May 2021, prices topped $3 a gallon for the first time in seven years and continued to climb. At the start of February—considered the start of the spring transition to summer-blend fuel— prices averaged $3.44 a gallon, a full dollar higher than last year and the second-highest price to start February this century (gas was $3.54 in 2013). By March 10, $4.318 was the average price per gallon. What’s more, prices in California have topped $5.60 a gallon and are setting new records each day.
On average, drivers pump 497 gallons a year into their vehicles, and that extra dollar a gallon adds up to nearly a $500 annual hit to the average consumer’s wallet. Without question, rising gas prices are having a profound impact on consumer views of the economy.
This intense economic pessimism is leading consumers to rethink their buying behaviors, and that includes spending on traditional c-store industry offers.
The bottom line: It’s harder to market to consumers who are in a bad mood—especially when they have less disposable income. However, there are still ways retailers can win their business.
GAS PRICE ISN’T EVERYTHING
Prices at the pump can determine where consumers choose to buy gas and in-store merchandise. More than 2 in 3 drivers (69%) say that gas price is the most important reason they select a location. It’s three times as important as location (22%) and nearly seven times as important as brand (10%).
NACS asked consumers why they pick a particular store and how their preferences change when they’re in their neighborhood versus when they’re traveling on the highway. In short, when they’re in their neighborhood, the priority is a good price and customer service. On the highway, their focus is one-stop shopping and speed of service.
Most drivers (56%) say they have a favorite store or chain. And while gas prices and location are the two most important attributes, there are more reasons why consumers select that store. Here’s where retailers can begin to differentiate their offer.
Not only do drivers have preferences for a specific store based on its offer, they will also inconvenience themselves to travel there. Most consumers will drive out of their way to save five cents a gallon, a sentiment we have tracked since 2007. An even higher percentage will drive out of their way because they like you, and your gas price is just one piece of the puzzle to building customer loyalty.
HOW CONSUMERS SHOP
Before we look at what consumers want inside the store, let’s describe who they are. Only 42% of American monthly gas consumers say they are currently employed full time, only slightly more than the 41% who are not working or retired (14% are working part time). Among the employed, 3 in 5 (61%) are commuting every day, compared to 20% who are exclusively working from home. This 3:1 ratio of daily commuters versus work-from-home workers is an extraordinary sign of how the pandemic has changed the lifestyle of the American workforce. However, just because someone is working from home doesn’t mean driving less.
EIA expects U.S. gasoline demand to increase to 8.95 million barrels (376 million gallons) per day in 2022, only slightly less than the 9.2 million barrels per day demand before the pandemic. People working from home may not be part of the morning commute, but they are driving. In fact, the time of day that someone fills up hasn’t changed compared to when NACS asked these same questions pre-pandemic.
People are filling up at traditional times, although how they are filling up is different. For starters, many are not in as much of a rush. They may be going to the store to get out of the house and break up the day, and survey results support this. A record 58% of drivers say they went inside the store the last time they purchased fuel. And in turn, the survey shows a dramatic increase in “frequent” customers: those who make purchases from convenience stores multiple times per week.
Today, 41% of consumers are “frequent” customers (shopping at least multiple times per week), a 14-point jump compared to the NACS pre-pandemic January 2020 study.
A spillover of “frequent” customer growth could be a lasting aftereffect of convenience stores serving as essential businesses during the pandemic, plus the closures of stores in other retail channels. As more drivers went inside stores to quickly and safely get necessities like pantry items, they liked what they saw and chose to come back.
Seven of the top 10 categories saw growth compared to 2020 pre-pandemic. In some cases, this reflects how consumers are now shopping c-stores instead of other channels. In other cases, it’s the growth of a specific category, whether temporary or long term.
Also, the industry’s strategic shift toward healthier options may have contributed to more in-store sales. One in four consumers (25%) say they choose healthy products “very often” or “always” when buying food at convenience stores.
Finally, it’s possible that more customers say they are coming inside the store because they like the core offer. It’s no surprise they treasure speed of service and customer service, but they also want to know that you care about them—likely why they are willing to drive five or 10 minutes out of their way or take a left-hand turn to frequent your store. They do this because they like you and appreciate your support of their community.
As the chart above shows, context matters. Customers want to see and hear how you care about the community. There’s a 2:1 difference between telling that story versus donating to a worthy cause.
For those with stores near or on the way to vacation destinations, the upcoming summer-drive season will present a perfect chance to connect with the 61% of drivers who are likely to hit the road this summer. Tell a story that appeals to their emotions, not simply their intellect.
How you define your offer communicates that you understand what today’s customers want. With negativity and pessimism abounding at home and abroad, your store can be a spot of joy as consumers happily hit the open road once again.
WHAT CONSUMERS WANT
From a transportation perspective, electric vehicles are the future—but how far off is that future? Last year, EV sales topped 430,000 units, an 83% increase over the prior year but only a fraction of the 14.9 million new vehicles sold in 2021.
Meanwhile, consumers seem to believe that EV sales are much greater.
So, why are consumers wrong about the realities of the EV market? For one, EVs are a hot topic and garner headlines. Also, auto manufacturers are offering more EVs, and some very slick Super Bowl commercials touted the benefits of EVs. To the average consumer, the future may look like it’s getting closer each day, if not here already.
Consumers generally like the concept of EVs: 49% say their attitude toward EVs has become more positive in recent years. And by a nearly 3:1 margin, American drivers today have a positive attitude toward EVs (54% positive vs. 19% negative).
However, there are still many perceived barriers clouding consumer perception regarding EVs. In the survey, 3 in 5 drivers (62%) think charging an EV outside of their home would be difficult. Meanwhile, 2 in 5 consumers (42%) also think EVs need to be charged more often than conventional cars, and 1 in 3 (34%) drivers think EVs need to be charged daily.
Thinking about the future, consumers see traditional fueling locations as the most logical places to charge EVs (aside from at work or home).
While the Biden Administration’s proposal to install EV chargers will take time, drivers would like to see the growth of charging locations accelerate: 61% say c-stores should “proactively install EV chargers to prepare for more EV drivers in the future.”
Innovation and opportunity aren’t merely on the road or at the pump. What about the experience inside your store? What emerging technologies do consumers want to see to improve convenience?
The best news for c-store operators? The top four conveniences that consumers want most could lead to cost savings on a per transaction level. Meanwhile, the less appealing ideas—curbside pickup and delivery—are larger efforts and cost-intensive.
So, what’s the big takeaway for 2022? Consumers are not in a good mood, which is never good for business.
On the other hand, they still plan to travel and spend money, whether part of their daily routine or vacations.
Consumer behavior has changed because of the pandemic, and it will be difficult to determine which changes are temporary and which are more enduring. However, the key to successful retailing in 2022 remains the same: Find out what your customers want and offer it. Communicate that you understand what they want and tell your story. They will likely reward you.
Want More Info?
NACS has fuels-related resources that communicate the industry’s voice to consumers and to the media:
1. Convenience Corner (convenience.org/media/conveniencecorner)
Our blog attracts thousands of viewers on fuels topics:
· Does the President Control Gas Prices?
· Who Makes Money Selling Gas?
· Will We See $4 Gas?
· Why Are Gas Prices Rising When They Should Be Falling?
· Will Gas Prices Affect Summer Travel?
· When Were Gas Prices Low?
Got a question that you want us to answer? Send a note to Jeff Lenard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Fuels Resource Center (www.convenience.org/fuels)
The online Fuels Resource Center shares consumer-friendly content related to gas prices, retail operations and consumer behavior, as well as fun pieces on 9/10 cent pricing and the evolution of self-serve fueling.
3. Fuels Market News (www.fuelsmarketnews.com)
Published by NACS, FMN is the downstream petroleum industry’s trusted source for fuels-related news and information, covering the fuels of today and tomorrow.